Lopini at Waikato Hospital 1 Dec 2017

Laid to rest

A student from Mailefihi Siu’ilikutapu College involved in the Gisborne bus crash on Christmas Eve 2016 at the Auckland service for Leotisia Malakai at Tuingapapai Wesleyan Church on Saturday January the 7th. Photograph: Melino Maka.

The last of the three deceased, Leotisia Malakai, arrived in Vava’u on Monday evening, January the 9th.  It took nine days for her body to be flown home to Tonga’s northern islands where she was head tutor of the Wesleyan church school, Mailefihi Siu’ilikutapu College.

A 55 year old Tongan woman, Leositia passed away on New Year’s Day at Waikato Hospital in Hamilton, New Zealand.  Her death was a week after the Gisborne bus crash.  In the end, the Christmas Eve accident of 2016 took her life and two others who died at the crash site, Sione Taumololo, an eleven-year-old boy, and Talita Fifita, a 33 year old woman.

The New Zealand Superintendent of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, Reverend Lopini Filise (centre), at Waikato Hospital in Hamilton, waiting to perform the last prayer for Leotisia Malakai, the third person to die from the Gisborne bus crash on Christmas Eve 2016. Photograph: Melino Maka.

Leotisia’s family asked that Reverend Lopini Filise perform the final prayer at Waikato Hospital in Hamilton before funeral proceedings commenced.  It was the right thing to do by Wesleyan church protocol.

Not only was Reverend Filise the New Zealand Superintendent of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, but he had served as Leotisia’s school principal at Mailefihi Siu’ilikutapu College in Vava’u when she was a young teacher.  More than merely attending to pastoral duty as an ordained minister of the church, it was a deeply moving farewell to an old colleague and friend.

On December 27th, Reverend Filise briefed the bus crash survivors on church protocol, which he was instructed to carry out by the Wesleyan President in Tonga.  While at Gisborne hospital to pray for the souls of the deceased – Sione Taumololo and Talita Fifita – he asked the organisers of the school brass band’s fundraising tour to cancel the scheduled concerts, at once.

His rationale was clear and concise.  The health and wellbeing of the children was the church’s top priority.  They had to return to Tonga.  Safely back in their home environment, they could convalesce within the support structure of families, church brethren, and communities, including social and pastoral services for youth and grief counselling, if need be.  It was imperative the trauma of losing their people be managed properly to ease psychological suffering.

Secondly, the Free Wesleyan Church in New Zealand would fundraise for Mailefihi Siu’ilikutapu College, at a later date.  Now, was not an appropriate time.  The bus accident, the deaths, the injured survivors, had to be worked through, and laid to rest, so the school and church community could have peace of mind.

Tonga’s Deputy Prime Minister, Hon. Siaosi Sovaleni, backed Reverend Filise’s call.  New Zealand media reported him as saying his “key concern now was getting the passengers back to Auckland and back to Tonga.”

Arriving in Gisborne on Christmas Day, he was the only parliamentarian from the Legislative Assembly of 9 nobles and 17 people’s representatives to visit the survivors.  He was also the sole MP to raise the alarm bell that the children must go “back to Tonga” with urgency.  Their welfare was crucial.

Sovaleni’s lone voice, and the fact his government did not financially assist in “getting the passengers back to Tonga,” indicated a glaring gap state social policy.  Obviously the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Social Services “responsible for all issues related to sustainable development, gender equality and health issues” did not have a health and safety policy on fatalities during overseas school or work trips.

Tongan journalist Tevita Motulalo noted in a Stuff National Opinion: “Horrific road crashes that claimed the lives of Tongans visiting New Zealand have many relatives close to financial ruin.”  Fact: Tonga’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on Social Services does not guide state policy to provide safety measures for families in such circumstances.  Conclusion: the people, the voters, the Tongan citizenry brunt the responsibility of holding the committee to account, and lobbying for policy change.

The casket of Leotisia Malakai, head tutor for Mailefihi Siu’ilikutapu College in Vava’u, Tonga, is carried into Lesieli Tonga Auditorium for the service on Saturday January the 7th at Tuingapapai Wesleyan Church in Favona, Mangere. Photograph: Melino Maka.

The heart of this story touches a sore point.  Despite Reverend Lopini’s plea to forego the fundraiser and return the students to Tonga, the organising committee ignored his appeal.  The tour went ahead.  Even when Leotisia Malakai died in Hamilton, the band played on.

Did this breach Tongan Wesleyan etiquette?  The most obvious way to show high regard to the deceased, the college head tutor, would be to refrain from playing concerts out of respect for her memory.

And here’s the hook, the chorus we ought to sing from the same hymn book.  Was the organising committee decision to continue fundraising across New Zealand made in the best health and safety interests of the school children?

What will be the consequences?  It is here that Tongan adults and parents have a social responsibility to ask: will these young people live with the long-term effects of unresolved trauma from the bus crash experience?

Who is responsible for protecting the lives and safety of our children – church, state, citizenry?

Wesleyan school boys from Mailefihi Siu’ilikutapu College in Vava’u pay their last respects to their head tutor, Leotisia Malakai, at the Auckland church service on January the 7th. Photograph: Melino Maka.

Reverend Lopini Filise (seated at table), the New Zealand Superintendent of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, facilitating proceedings at the Auckland church service on January the 7th. Photograph: Melino Maka.


Dr Teena Brown is an anthropologist and senior lecturer in the Faculty of Maori and Indigenous Development at Auckland University of Technology.

Melino Maka is the Chair of the Tongan Advisory Council in Auckland and the publisher of the news and current affairs website, tonganz.net

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